FUJAIRAH // Rising over the mountains, the sky changes from a bright desert yellow to a darker blue, and the air becomes heavy with humidity. Passing mountain villages, which often are just a handful of houses and a herd of goats scaling the hills, it is easy to feel as if one has slipped back in time. And then the road curves to reveal a convoy of 4x4s, packed full with food and family.
Below is a city of tents and UAE flags that stretch for five kilometres along a narrow strip between the beach and the base of the mountains, a rapidly maturing National Day tradition. Girls fly rainbow kites, grandmothers smoke shisha in the shade of acacia trees and young men play cards as the sun sets over the mountains behind them. Boys play football while their fathers fish for the next day's meal.
The families have come in their hundreds from every emirate to camp, to play, to celebrate National Day - and hope for rain. Camping is an Emirati tradition that dates back centuries and nowhere is more popular during the Eid and National Day holidays than the cool mountains and beaches on the east coast. This year's long holiday has made the coastal campsites more popular than ever as hundreds hope to witness the first big rains of the season.
There is a carnival atmosphere on the coast. Roadside stalls sell bundles of firewood, coconuts, pomegranates, sweet potatoes, mangoes and nuts to be roasted on camp fires and shared over jokes and family tales about days gone by and days to come. For those with a sweet tooth, a small ice-cream lorry circulates near the beach, its whining tune drowned out by the cries of footballers and drumming of campers.
Boys stomp over gigantic pieces of coral on their way to the shore, where they raise their khandouras to their knees and tentatively wade into the cool waters of the Indian Ocean. And all eyes are turned towards the sky, where people wait for the rain that will release the colours and smells of the earth that has been dry for so long. After all, it is the cool weather that brings people here from as far as Abu Dhabi and even Qatar or Saudi Arabia.
"If [it is too sunny], we don't come camping," says Abdulla al Teneiji, 33, from the coastal town of Rams in Ras al Khaimah. "If it's raining, OK, we're here." Mr al Teneiji has come on a day trip with five families from RAK for a picnic of biryani and sweet tea. For perfect camping weather, they hope the skies will turn black and rain will pour but in the meantime they are content to watch their children play in the calm, shallow water.
Each family travelled in its own vehicle and when they all arrived, the women set up on one mat and the men seated themselves on another, three metres away. Both men and women cradle babies in their arms. "It's our vacation," says Khadija Rashed, 22, an IT student at Ittihad University. "We've come here for more than 10 years. It's nice weather, a nice beach and it's National Day." "It's the weather that brings us here," says Ebrahim Ali, 27. "Also, this is our birthday. If it wasn't National Day we would not be here."
To Sheikha Ali, 27, this family gathering, where food and stories are shared, represents a strong part of her Emirati identity. "Being Emirati means we are generous and we come together," she says. "My parents are even more national than us because they lived the day the country was made. "Now National Day has become more famous and it is something we have to celebrate." Nearby, Saud al Hoti cooks machboos inside an open canvas tent with his childhood friend Mohanad al Hoti. The young men, both 24 and from Ajman, say camping on the east coast is an important family tradition.
"I've come every year since I was a baby," says Saud. "It's a popular place and people have come here for many years now. For Eid, for National Day, any chance they get they come with family and friends." Saud and Mohanad have spent three days here with their families and plan to stay another three days on their own, unless they are tempted to return to the city to join the National Day parade. "Wallahi, I remember last year I was in Abu Dhabi on the Corniche," says Saud, grinning. "In each city they are crazy on the Corniche because when we're born the country is already strong in our hearts."
For them, camping is relaxing but also a reminder of how difficult life in the UAE once was. "On National Day we remember Sheikh Zayed and all these people who brought unity," says Mohanad. "So that's why we put pictures on the cars. We love our country. Year by year it's stronger." The energy, the clouds and the crowds grow as the day passes. By the afternoon, there is a steady queue of traffic and people park further and further into the acacias and mountainside as the best sites are filled.
Big 4x4s charge past, many already kitted out in National Day regalia. Images of sheikhs from each emirate grace windscreens and UAE flags are hung from trees and flutter from tent poles. "For National Day every year everyone comes here, even people come from Qatar and Saudi Arabia when they have holidays," says Naseid al Mesmari, 32, a father of three from Fujairah. "We visit this place and enjoy getting out of the house and the city. Everyone comes with friends and family, we go swimming, eating, fishing at night."
Yesterday, after Mr al Mesmari and his family set up their canvas tent he went fishing for four hours. His sons relaxed in the company of their cousins and woke early in the morning to wake him for a swim. The day has been almost perfect and now, after enjoying the sheri he caught the night before, his children are playing drums. "Today there is no rain yet but bas, we will see. Over the sea you know when it comes, can see the thunder," he says hopefully.
But what will the campers do if the rains arrive? "I will hide in my car!" says Noura al Khaja, 27, a mother from Sharjah who wears giant sunglasses despite the ominous clouds. "And the tent!" says her daughter Maitha, 11. Meanwhile, Maitha's grandmother unwinds, puffing a grape-and mint flavoured shisha, completely unconcerned. firstname.lastname@example.org